The most telling difference between familiar versions of the tale and Glass's version is that in regular fairytale, good and evil are double- underlined in white or black. But in Glass's wordless world, presentiments of doom hover over the most innocuous scenes like a layer of poison gas. Our first glimpse of the four players - Hansel, Gretel, Dad, Mum - is a vision of domesticity that ought to be cosy. Mum, heavily pregnant, sits stroking her belly; little Hansel's playing in a corner. Dad reads happily in a chair, but the chair is at 90 degrees to the floor, leaving Dad on a dangerously different plane of reality, out of kilter, off the wall. Gretel (we only guess it is she) hangs by a thread above her mother's head, eerily groping and kicking in an amniotic void. She's already struggling to resist her fate, and she hasn't even been born.
With a name like Glass, this director must be tired of people saying he looks at things darkly, but it's true. In 90 minutes of theatre there's just one happy scene, when the family launch into a rowdy vaudeville routine of spoon-playing and plate-balancing while laying the table for supper. Minutes later, a bird flutters ominously in through a window and expires on the kitchen table. Seconds after that, Mum takes poorly and drops dead too, prompting a howl of anguish that echoes and re-echoes through every turn of the story to its miserable close.
It would be comforting to know that the source of all this angst was Glass's imagination. But in fact, the Expressionist imagery is informed by the drawings and imaginings of real-life traumatised children around the world, which the director spent 12 months researching. From these he conjures savagely beautiful effects: the spirit leaving the body as a transparent mannequin, lit up from within by little stars; a gangly bird of prey created by three pairs of arms; the essence of life shed as sparkling human tears (don't ask how: it looked like magic) and, simplest of all, a ghostly omnipresent chorus of "lost children", black-clad performers each wearing a photographic mask of a grinning baby. Are we the lost children, I wonder? Ambiguity being Glass's favourite ploy, the wondering is part of the point.
But for all its brilliant ideas, the show too often grinds along in bottom gear, and the prolonged sobbing and wailing which no doubt proved cathartic in rehearsal were a major turn-off in the Purcell Room. Yet there's hope for this most original piece, given the tendency of Glass productions to evolve (ie, improve) on tour. And there's more to come. When The Hansel Gretel Machine ends its British tour in May, Glass goes to Hanoi to work with street children, whose responses to this piece will feed into the second part of his "Lost Child" trilogy. Are you sitting comfortably? You won't be.
Bedlam came to The Place on Tuesday night - a dance company going by that name at least, though what it had to offer was some of the sprightliest, funniest modern dance to emerge in a long time. A duet between Yael Flexer and Rachel Krische, obscurely entitled No 3, hinged on the mundane squabbles and resentments that go into devising a piece of choreography: who goes first? Who gets the snazziest steps? Who gets to whirl their arms centre- stage, and who's the stooge who has to duck? At one point, copycat Krische climbs inside Flexer's shirt and trousers from behind, prompting a roll of the eyes, and the ludicrous deadpan line: "Rachel, get outa my pants." But during their comic war of attrition, the pair deliver great swathes of buoyant and fascinating movement, marrying careful detail with the tomboy swagger of street dance. Too bad your correspondent fell ill at the interval and missed the second half. This Bedlam is a madness that should be given every encouragement.
David Glass Co: Worthing Connaught (01903 235333), Mon & Tues; Bexhill De La Ware Pavilion (01424 787949), Thurs; Croydon Clocktower (0181 253 1030), Fri & Sat. Bedlam: Woking Dance Festival (01483 761144), to 23 Apr.Reuse content